By: B Shantanu
October 04, 2006
expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer
is at the bottom.
In all honesty,
I should have written on this topic months, maybe even years ago – Some
times I think this should have been the first post on
– which I call “Hindu Dharma”.
I have been asked on numerous
occasions, what is it to be a “Hindu”? And yet, I desisted writing
anything on this topic until now. Why? Not because I had nothing to say –
but because I was looking for a good, coherent answer and a pithy
explanation; a summary that I could point people to…so that others can
read and understand for themselves the core of “Hinduism” and our belief
system, our values.
wonder what is the best way to define and describe my identity as a
“Hindu”? Our scriptures are silent on the issue. Our belief system, values
and what we can loosely label as “religion” is not codified. The
“religion” that we follow makes little or no demands on us, and growing up
in a pre-dominantly Hindu environment in India, I never paused to think
I came across
by Suresh Balaraman, it struck a chord.
Ten sentences about
started his quest when he realised that he could not say even “10
sentences about Hinduism” – especially to a non-Hindu.
Suresh lives in the US and is, in his own words, one of “the 6% of
Indians who have had college education.” He also has additional
degrees which makes the case even more poignant.
he says, “We (i.e. well-educated, articulate people) can't say
something about our religion then there is something totally wrong with
us, the Hindus.”
believe at least part of the responsibility lies with our religious
scholars, leaders and preachers. But each one of us is responsible too.
How many of us have made an attempt to learn and understand more about
Hinduism – or more accurately “Sanatan Dharma”? So the blame is widely
suggests a few reasons behind our inability to articulate the core values
does not place any demands on us. “It has allowed us too much leeway to
pursue our spiritual goals. This, some refer to as the uniqueness and
greatness of our religion. However, this has also caused Hindus to remain
ignorant of the basics of their religion. There is no sense of
commonality of belief amongst the Hindus. We don’t share a lot…There is
no sense of brotherhood among Hindus as it exists among other
we have a hazy idea about our religion. “Our reluctance to speak about
our religion may be due to the fact that we really aren't clear cut in our
understanding of our religion. Most of us didn't study the religion in a
methodical way in
India. We really didn't have
to. We just absorbed the religious life around us in India. Like pickles
we were soaked in it…we learnt most of our religious knowledge passively.
practiced our religion in whatever way our parents told us. Our parents
probably got their education passively from their parents. Most of our
religious education was caste based, sectarian, and provincial. It wasn't
a comprehensive one. Most of us learnt some rites and rituals, some
prayers, some mantras, and felt that would suit our purpose. Probably it
No stranger asked us what we believed in. No one expressed any curiosity
in knowing our religion…there was no need for us to know it well enough to
be able to explain to others.”
are differences among us in our emphasis and practice of religion. “There
is a smouldering sense of animosity among Hindus because each one
thinks that his practice of the religion is better than anyone else’s.
This is the curse of
India or shall I say only
Hindus. Every Indian thinks "I am not inferior to anyone, but how dare the
other fellow thinks that he is equal to me (don't care whether he belongs
to my religion/hometown). I will not tolerate that". We dislike or even
hate the religious practices of other Hindus. No wonder the Moguls and the
British had the least difficulty in conquering us.
We unfairly claim that the British divided and ruled over us. Actually
they exploited the lack of fellowship among Hindus to their advantage.”
A “Hindu”? What’s that?
is it important to know all this anyway?
us who either live and work abroad or in the course of their work,
frequently come in contact with people from other countries and religions
often get stumped when faced with questions such as the ones Suresh faced,
“do the Hindus worship Idols by the million? Do they worship cows? Do
they still practice caste system? and so on..”
unable to articulate a response – in many cases, we simply don’t know what
to say. That may have been good enough in a world where no one really
“cared” about India and Indians. But in a rapidly globalizing world and
one in which religion is acquiring increasing prominence, this will simply
not be good enough.
inability or unwillingness to answer these questions marks as, at best, as
ignorant of our own culture and beliefs and at worst, unconcerned about
what is probably the most salient and defining part of our identity as an
have a selfish motive behind this. As Suresh says, “If we could all
share the same thoughts about Hinduism, it would build some fellowship
among us.” And I think that
alone is a very good reason for us to try and understand Hinduism in terms
that we can easily explain to others.
can we capture the essential elements, the essence of Hinduism
in a few bullet points? Here is what I suggest:
Hinduism is an ancient religion and has evolved over the course of
started off c. 3000 B.C. It has been almost continuously modified over
the long course of its history.. Although the religious practices have
evolved and continue to change, the philosophy remains in the Vedas
believe that God exists in two “forms”:
(i) in a formless, omnipresent, and omnipotent form called “Brahman”
which (symbolized in the form of "O M") and (ii) in the form of various
icons and images that help us better imagine his attributes compared to
an abstract form
Regardless of the form we worship,
we are aware that all the
different forms eventually lead to the same God and each of us is free
to choose his or her own path to worship and salvation.
The forms that are most commonly worshipped include the Trinity of
(Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). The creative energy is frequently
personified as “Devi” and is an essential representation of feminine
power and as the source of all life
Hindus believe in the theory of “karma” and in the cycle of life and
death (Note that
we believe in the “cycle” of birth and re-birth as opposed to just one
instance of re-incarnation or re-birth)
The essence of “karma” is that actions have consequences that cannot be
belief in “karma” (e.g. that our predicament is the result of our past
actions) gives us strength to accept things we can't change.
We also believe that we can shape our future by the deeds that we do and
the spirit in which we do them
Hindus believe that lasting peace & happiness (salvation or “Moksha”)
can only be achieved by moving beyond this cycle of life and death.
believe that the core of our religious belief and philosophy is found in
the Vedas and Upanishads.
The “Bhagvad Gita” (literally “The Song of God”) explains some of these
values in a simple and easy to understand form. Our epics (Ramayana ,
Mahabaratha and the Puranas) illustrate the core of
our values in the form of stories
believe in the power of prayer, sacred hymns and pious thoughts.
We usually have a place
in the house for a private altar (“Devghar”) which is a representation
of the “Abode of God”. On special occasions (weddings, birth, marriage)
and festivals, we visit temples for special prayers
in my humble opinion, are some of our core beliefs and values. There may
be more and you may disagree with some of these – but we have to make a
beginning somewhere – and this is a modest attempt towards that end.
And why is all this
on my blog,
“Hindu-ism” or “Sanatan Dharma” is the oldest surviving major religion in
the world today…and the only one that gives you the choice, the freedom
and the luxury of beliefs that is un-afforded in any other extant set of
It is a religion and culture that articulated and defined the concepts of
tolerance and mutual respect even as most of mankind was still deep in the
hinterlands of cultural and spiritual enlightenment.
One can be justifiably proud of it…but before pride must come awareness
and at least a basic understanding…otherwise the word “Hindu” simply
becomes a label.
us work together towards understanding it and spreading awareness about
it. As Suresh says, “Let us give it the vigour it needs. Let us spread
the word not only to our children, but to whoever (else) wants to know
all, spread the word amongst fellow Hindus - for unless we understand
believe ourselves, how can we convince others?
I wrote above, this is a modest attempt and will remain incomplete until I
get feedback, comments and suggestions for improving the list of bullet
points. Please email me your thoughts and ideas. In the end, a
well-articulated, 10-point bullet list is probably more powerful than a
Send your views to author
I particularly liked Suresh’s nuanced recommendation to resolve the
dilemma about labelling Hinduism as a way of life vs. a religion
“Let us not confuse people: When someone asks us
about Hinduism, let us not confuse them by saying that Hinduism is not
a religion , it is a way of life…or We don’t call it Hinduism, we call
it Sanathana Dharma (eternal law). Let us be clear cut. Let us accept
the fact that we do have a religion. Hinduism like other religions has
some ideas of what or who God is, what is God’s relationship with
humans and other beings. Since we incorporate our religious teachings
in our day to day living we feel Hindu way of life is Hinduism.”
This is vitally important and underpins the liberal, tolerant and open
attitude that Hindus have towards the followers of other religions,
various sects and beliefs. In place of contradictions, we see unity pf
purpose; the religion is therefore intrinsically inclusive, liberal,
tolerant and “secular” in the truest sense of the word – in as much as
it does not distinguish between different forms of belief and worship
and does not consider one as superior to another.
Foreign commentators and those not familiar with the concept often
equate “karma” with hopelessness or fatalism. This is not true and we
should try and vigorously clarify this if we come across such an
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